A Two-Way Conversation: Praying through the Psalms with my students, by Jonny Fulks
I recently had the pleasure of teaching 7th and 8th grade Bible class for two days. When asked if there was anything specific I would like to cover those days, I immediately jumped at the opportunity to teach students something that had changed my life. A few years ago, I had to read a book for a seminary class. It was Donald Whitney’s Praying the Bible. Once I finished reading it, my prayer life was never the same.
Fear of Boredom
“How many of you,” I asked my students, “have gotten bored when you pray?” Did I just dare to imply that we get bored with prayer? Yes I did. We do get bored with our prayers. So, what is the problem here? Dr. Whitney says that “prayers without variety eventually become words without meaning.” All too often, though well intentioned, we pray the same old things about the same old things. This is what leads to boredom.
Praying the same old things is normal, but Jesus does not call us to be normal. We need to pray for important things in our lives — finances, work, missionaries, our children — but what are the odds that our prayers for these sound exactly the same every time? By no means am I saying that we need to stop praying for the important things in our lives. What I am saying is we need to pray about those things as if we are having a conversation with the God we are praying to. A one-sided conversation easily gets boring, so nip boredom in the bud, and have a conversation with the God who wants to talk to us.
“What is the simple solution,” Dr. Whitney asks, “to the boring routine of saying the same old things about the same old things?
“When you pray, pray through a passage of Scripture.”
That is it. It is that simple! And what better place to start than the book of the Bible that contains the entire range of human emotions: the Psalms.
To pray the Bible, simply go though a passage line by line, talking to God about whatever comes to mind as you read the text. Philippians 4:6 tells us to not “be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.” We can bring “everything by prayer” to God. Everything is something we may pray about. See how easy that is? Anyone can do it, which is why I was so excited to teach it to the 7th and 8th graders.
I started off asking the students why they get bored when they pray. I received several answers from them, some of which are probably going through your head right now. I then talked them through how this effects spiritual life. Prayer, because it is talking to God, brings one’s relationship closer to him. How else does one build a relationship with someone, but by spending time with them. So why not use the Bible — God’s words to us — to converse with him?
What does this look like practically? If you were to pray through a psalm, like Psalm 23, you read the first line of verse 1, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and pray anything, that comes to mind until you run out of things to say prompted from that one line. In his book, Whitney tells of a former student who once prayed for nearly half an hour on the first line of verse 1, and all of it was genuine prayer that was not the same old things about the same old things.
“If you are praying through a psalm,” says Whitney, “simply read that psalm line by line, talking to God about whatever thoughts are prompted by the inspired words you read. If your mind wanders from the subject of the text, take those wandering thoughts Godward, then return to the text. If you come to a verse you don’t understand, just skip it and go to the next verse. If you don’t understand that one, move on. If you do understand but nothing comes to mind to pray about, go to the next verse. If sinful thoughts enter in, pray about them and go on.”
Over the course of two class periods, students were given a few chances to pray through Psalms for specific amounts of time. The responses were so encouraging. I had students saying things like, “My mind didn’t wander,” “ The time was too short,” “It seemed like a real conversation with a real person,” and “The Psalm spoke directly to what I am going through now.”
For homework, students were asked to write a reflection paragraph on their personal prayer time. At the bottom of several of those assignments were some personal notes. Students expressed thanks for the assignment and making them pray through Scripture. Some even said they were against the assignment at first, but afterwards were grateful for it. Many said they intend to use it in their own daily prayer life.
The joy of prayer is so important in Christian life. Seeing students learn this joy is a lasting joy that a teacher will never forget.